By Julie Gordon
TORONTO (Reuters) - Ask the new wave of Canadian directors why they're getting calls from Hollywood and the answer is easy: Canada's thriving film industry has allowed them the freedom to tell the stories they want to tell, in the way they want.
In a Hollywood built around commercial success - often at the cost of originality - Canadian directors are now bringing their voices to major feature films. So far, the response has been good.
Awards season buzz is already mounting around two Hollywood-backed efforts, Denis Villeneuve's "Prisoners" and Jean-Marc Vallee's "Dallas Buyers Club," which both premiered to strong reviews at the 38th annual Toronto International Film Festival.
"I think we're at the start of something really great," said Michael Dowse, who directed "The F Word" and co-wrote "The Grand Seduction," which both premiered at the festival. "I think it's a sign of our system nurturing directors and letting them tell stories that aren't necessarily hinged on being completely commercial."
So while previous generations of Canadian filmmakers like Norman Jewison and Paul Haggis packed up and moved south to pursue their dreams, the strong local industry has home grown directors now choosing to stay put.
Vallee, who broke out with the 2005 French Canadian feature "C.R.A.Z.Y.," has since made films in the United States, Britain, France and at home in Quebec, a home he has no plans to leave.
Villeneuve, meanwhile, brings his first Hollywood effort to the festival with the intense thriller "Prisoners," while also displaying his distinctly Canadian, art-house voice in the doppelganger drama "Enemy."
That ability to appeal to a variety of audiences is the forte of the current generation of Canadian filmmakers, said Cameron Bailey, the festival's artistic director.
"I think when filmmakers are talented enough and skilled enough, they will be able to work wherever they choose to," he said.
"These great directors, who began their careers in Canada, are not just moving south of the border, but they are working across the border, back and forth," Bailey added. "I think that's going to be the future of Canadian filmmaking."
LAUGHS BRING DEALS
Indeed, Canadian films have never looked stronger, and a healthy injection of big-name Hollywood stars is helping broaden that appeal, especially in the comedy genre.
"The F Word," which stars A-lister Daniel Radcliffe as a medical school drop-out who falls for an animator played by Zoe Kazan, was well-received by critics at the festival and CBS Films has already snapped up the U.S. distribution rights.
A testament to the evolving local film industry, the crowd-pleasing, romantic comedy is unapologetically Canadian, with Toronto's skylines and urban neighborhoods proudly on display. But it is also universally appealing, with a sense the story could take place just about any North American city.
Moving west of Toronto, the resort city of Banff, Alberta plays a starring role in Jeremiah Chechik's "The Right Kind of Wrong," which features "True Blood" actor Ryan Kwanten as a struggling writer who falls for the bride on her wedding day.
The formulaic rom-com failed to wow critics at the festival, but managed to nab a U.S. distribution deal with Magnolia Pictures.
Other Canadian-helmed titles looking for an audience include "Devil's Knot," a dramatic retelling of the notorious 1993 West Memphis murders by Academy Award-nominated director Atom Egoyan, and Xavier Dolan's new feature, "Tom on the Farm," which has been lauded as his most "commercially viable" effort.
'FRIENDS IN HOLLYWOOD ARE ENVIOUS'
For actor and director Don McKellar, who is at the festival with his third feature, "The Grand Seduction," the goal has never been to make it in Hollywood, but rather to have the freedom to make the films he wants to make.
"I tend to generate my owns things and I feel there's more support for that up here," he told Reuters. "And I think it would be very sad if I felt compromised down there doing some project I didn't believe in."
A remake of a popular French Canadian film, "The Grand Seduction" centers around a dying fishing village that needs to get a full-time doctor in order to get its own factory.
Praised by The Hollywood Reporter as a "charming, wholly commercial little comedy," some critics are suggesting it could be the breakout hit the Canadian industry has been hoping for.
That would be fine by McKellar, but the Toronto native has no plans to head south.
"I've done a couple of things and sort of flirted with the idea, but I know so many people who went down and were disappointed," he said. "All my friends in Hollywood are envious of what is happening up here in Canada."
(Additional reporting by Mary Milliken in Toronto; Editing by Mary Milliken and Leslie Gevirtz)